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The Death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Occupant of the First Circle – the Death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn

By Binoy Kampmark

In A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a microstudy of Russia’s penal system is delivered to the reader with unrelenting power. The subject is accused of espionage and sentenced to rot in the Soviet gulag. The author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died of heart failure in his home near Moscow on Sunday, is the most known exponent of Russian gulag literature. But for all his clarity on the subject, something enhanced by his time as a prisoner, Solzhenitsyn mirrored the tormented eccentricities of his country, one that Winston Churchill described in 1939 as a riddle wrapped inside a mystery inside an enigma.

In The First Circle Solzhenitsyn focuses on the intricate trappings of the prison system. Not all zeks (or prisoners) lived the tawdry, grotesque lives of Ivan Denisovich. Others were modestly privileged in serving the state and could even be rewarded. The workers of the Mavrino Institute were still in Dante’s First Circle of Inferno, but it was a privileged one, with ample bread and butter. The story is sketched within the framework of how a voice is identified and developed for state purposes.

No one is immune from the leviathan that may intervene and crush a subject at any given moment, whether through an innocent remark made in public, or even a telephone call. Innokenty Volododin, State Counselor in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, thinks he has taken precautions in warning a scientist of an impending trap implicating him as a traitor. But his call of warning is noted by a devilishly ingenious machine which examines the particles of human speech to build a picture of the voice, a sort of speech biometric. He is arrested and sent to Lubyanka prison.

In 1970, the Nobel Prize committee merited Solzhenitsyn with their award. He refused to leave for Stockholm, fearing expulsion from the Soviet Union. This did not prevent it from eventually happening in 1974. He was exiled first to Switzerland, then the United States, where he finalized the last two volumes of his monumental study of the penal system Gulag Archipelago. The three-volume study, crafted with clinical precision between 1973 and 1978 committed to print what his novels had already shown: how diverse, scientific and perversely modern the Soviet Union’s brutal prison program between 1918 to 1956 had been.

While brilliant in his literary oeuvre, Solzhenitsyn proved erratic in his philosophical appraisals. He embraced a volatile blend of nationalism and religion that resembled the viewpoints of the authors behind Vekhi (Landmarks), a 1909 collection of essays calling for a religious-nationalist revival in Russia. While he agreed with much about what fellow dissident Andrei Sakharov said, he could not agree with the latter’s impression in the 1970s that nationalism was ‘a sort of peripheral nuisance’. ‘Does not national variety enrich mankind as faceting increases the value of the jewel?’ he wrote in a collection edited essays From Under the Rubble. His writings on this subject were dismissed, as writer John Bayley put it, as those of a ‘fuddy duddy’ lamenting the ‘disappearance of Holy Russia’.

Democrats found him particularly indigestible. While bemoaning robber baron capitalism, his views remained fundamentally illiberal, hostile to both scientific socialism and liberal democracy. In a 2003 interview with biographer Joseph Pearce, Solzhenitsyn branded humanism as ‘irreligious anthropocentrism’, a breeder of ‘intellectual chaos.’

On his return to Russia in 1994, he was happy to pronounce judgment against Russia’s fledging democracy to members of the Duma. His fondness for Czarist Russia, on the other hand, never abated, being reaffirmed in one of his last works, Two Hundred Years Together. Being a whitewash of the dynastic regime (it was, we are surprised to read, not anti-Semitic), it was also a honed strike on Russia’s Jewry. They, he argued, had to be accorded their fair share of blame for the country’s misfortunes.

Being in the West did not necessarily endear him to it. In 2006, he speculated in that long vein of Russian fears and suspicions that a plot of encirclement had been hatched in Washington and Europe’s capitals. Russia, despite posing ‘no threat’, was being threatened by an ever expansive NATO, thereby ‘encircling Russia from the South’ (29 April).

His embrace by President Vladimir Putin signaled the ultimate demise of democratic impulses in Russia – neither personality had much time for a political philosophy both found distasteful, preferring a nationalistic medium to convey the greatness of Russia’s revival. With cruel irony, the ex-KGB man and the chief interrogator of the Stalinist gulags had more in common than they realized. Both were cogs at different ends of the totalitarian machine, occupants of the First Circle. As for Stalin’s crimes, they have, under Putin, assumed an air of benign necessity. History, it seems, has stolen its ironical march on Solzhenitsyn.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. He can be reached at

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